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Travel Image: Pai, Thailand
Photo: Ole Jenson

Travel Image: Pai, Thailand
Photo: Paul Piebinga

Thailand: No Pai, No Gain
by Dave Bresci

It was late May, and I was traveling through Thailand, land of stray dogs and fearless chickens. While roaming across the northern part of the country, I found myself in a village named Pai (pronounced pie). Id met a few people in Chiang Mai who recommended that I visit Pai, though they couldnt exactly explain why. They just said that Id like it.

Pai is a slow-moving, remote village full of hippies, granolas, and wannabe hippies and granolas. It's a place where people go for a couple of days and end up staying a few months. You cant exactly figure out what it is you did all day, yet you feel satisfied nonetheless. This English guy named David who was staying at my guesthouse had been in Pai for five months, working as a part-time ambulance driver and playing guitar at the local bar. Other than that, Im not sure quite what he did to occupy his time. I think he took a lot of naps.

The guesthouse where I lodged lay along the Pai River. I had a private bungalow on the water, with a view reminiscent of Coppolas depiction of the Nung River, minus the heads on pikes.

My first night in town, Rick, the owner of the guesthouse, invited me out to the courtyard to hang out with him and a few of his friends. A couple of them were playing guitar and singing Thai songs, which, while incomprehensible, offered a welcome dose of Thai culture.

I was surrounded by drunken Thais singing Eagles tunes at the top of their lungs, which was entertaining for me, but probably not for the other guests who were trying to sleep less than 20 feet away.

My Pai adventure came courtesy of Rick's brother-in-law, Thip, who gives tours of northwestern Thailand on off-road motorcycles. Between Thai jams and shots of Sam Song whiskey, he told me that I could take a two-day trip with him through the forest and mountains up along the Myanmar border.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. I have a motorcycle back home. Ive been riding for a couple of years. How hard can it be? I was thinking, you know, dirt roads, the occasional puddle, maybe a rock here and there.

The first sign, or omen, if you will, came the morning we were leaving. A monsoon appeared from nowhere, covering everything in three inches of water. It stopped raining after about an hour and Thip said "No problem." This was to be a familiar refrain from my guide.

Within minutes, we were on our way. Activities in Thailand don't let themselves get bogged down by pesky things like liability forms, insurance, or any sort of basic safety precautions. I handed over the cash, Thip handed over the bike, and eventually - at my insistence - a helmet.

Within the first, five minutes, I was covered in a film of mud and sweat. I came to realize that off-road means 45-degree inclined dirt roads, and sharp rocks, and running streams, and sharp rocks, and two-foot deep troughs of mud, and sharp rocks, and swampy rice fields, and more sharp rocks. Im sure there are situations that are more distressing than riding a motorcycle with the rear tire constantly sliding back and forth as it tries in vain to find some traction, but they did not come readily to mind.

Thip was a great guide for the three seconds was able to keep him in my field of vision. He zipped around corners, up hills, and around banks so fast that it was almost impossible to follow him. Every once in a while hed stop and wait for me, at which point Id ask him to slow down. No problem, hed say. Go faster. Then he was gone.

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